It's not even noon, yet Stratford High School's Room 2008 is already uncomfortably warm. About 20 sophomores and juniors fan their gleaming faces with folders and miscellaneous papers, surrounded by giant posters lining the room. On one, cartoon sperm swim around a Venn diagram comparing male and female sex organs.
One kid says a friend told him a condom was part of the male anatomy. A few chuckles break out, but by and large the kids are alright.
"That's interesting," says Lyndsey Godwin, a Planned Parenthood education and training instructor who regularly visits schools across the Metro Nashville Public School District to teach hormonally charged young adults the ins-and-outs of reproductive health. "But totally incorrect."
Godwin proceeds to discuss a wide array of topics, from avoiding risky sexual behavior to more philosophical questions. One question clearly strikes a chord.
"When do you know you're ready to have sex?" Godwin asks.
Silence falls over the room. Then, at once, an explosion of answers.
"One at a time, please," Godwin chides.
A boy sporting a flat-top haircut raises his hand and answers her question with a question: "Like, do you mean if you're ready, or emotionally? 'Cause when you hit puberty, your body is ready, but your emotions may not be."
It's a surprisingly deft and nuanced response, one that the Planned Parenthood rep encourages. As a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School and an employee of one of conservative Christianity's favorite punching bags, she believes matters of faith and sexuality aren't black-and-white issues.
"Theologically, I see both faith and sexuality as inherent parts of the human experience," Godwin tells the Scene. "We are sexual beings. We are also beings who interact with faith. Even an atheist or agnostic is interacting in a faith-filled culture. I feel like sex is not necessarily bad or evil. We simply have to figure out how to have good conversations about it that our youth can benefit from."
As she tells the students, sexual values can vary from person to person, but it's their personal values and sense of responsibility that matter most when making smart decisions about sex.
The homeroom teacher appreciates the dialogue. She's taught lifetime wellness at Stratford High for the past eight years. For each of those years, Planned Parenthood has been a regular fixture in her East Nashville classroom.
"Simply, they're relatable," says the teacher, who asked that her name be withheld. "It's realistic, it's up to date, it's current information. They give kids a different perspective in what's going on outside in the community that I, as a teacher, cannot provide."
Unfortunately for her and her students, however, soon Godwin may also have a hard time providing it. And for that, they can thank the Tennessee legislature.
Hot off their recent hits "The Monkey Bill" and "Don't Say Gay," the members of the General Assembly left another flaming bag of legislation on the state's doorstep as lawmakers hustled out of town: a bill designed to keep abstinence at the heart of state sexual education programs.
Currently awaiting the signature of Gov. Bill Haslam is SB 3310/HB 3621, aka the "Tennessee Integrated Sexual Education Bill," which would reduce Godwin's reality-based approach to a "one-size-fits-all" treatment. Worse, opponents claim, it would further the aim of religious conservatives to wipe Planned Parenthood off the map.
On its surface, the new law would prohibit public-school curricula from promoting as-yet-undefined "gateway sexual activities." Sponsored by Rep. Jim Gotto (R-Hermitage) and Sen. Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), the bills passed their respective chambers by wide margins. They also garnered Tennessee another spate of outraged and/or contemptuous headlines across the country, most prominently on The New York Times op-ed page.
"Teachers must stop demonstrating gateway sexual activity," said anti-pundit Stephen Colbert in a segment last month mocking the legislators' intent. "It's not enough to ban showing how to put a condom on a banana; we have to stop teaching our kids how to French-kiss a cantaloupe."
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